By JEANNE STARMACK
A son of Youngstown has come home to a heartfelt welcome and a tribute to the power of his words.
Simeon Booker Jr. grew up on the South Side and graduated from South High School in 1938. He entered Youngstown College, but left it to attend Virginia Union University after he discovered that because he is black, he couldn’t participate in any student social activities.
He stood at the podium Saturday evening in Kilcawley Center at the college, which has evolved into Youngstown State University.
Booker is 95 years old now. His accomplishments since the time he left Youngstown until his return Saturday inspired the tribute, which filled the center’s Chestnut Room.
As a journalist, Booker uncovered atrocities blacks endured during the 1950s and ‘60s in the Deep South, and he chronicled the battles of the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement.
He was at the funeral of Emmet Till, the 14-year-old boy who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after he was accused of flirting with a white woman.
From the beginning of his journalism career as a columnist for The Vindicator, writing “News Notes for Colored Folks,” he worked at black newspapers in Baltimore and Cleveland. He went on to become the first black reporter for the Washington Post.
He became a writer for Ebony and JET magazines, and it was his reporting for JET, along with photographs of Emmet Till in his casket, that helped point out the need for justice and equality in the country. He became Washington Bureau Chief for JET, retiring in 2007. He has written a book with his wife, Carol, titled “Shocking the Conscience.”
At the podium Saturday evening, his modesty was evident as he referred to himself as one of the “old-timers ... gone or on the way out.”
He eloquently passed the torch.
“We appreciate the tributes, but we didn’t finish the job,” he said.
“That’s up to you.”
Into the 1950s, there were other black students suffering the indignity of being denied “activity cards” at Youngstown College.
Inspired by a story about Booker that Vindicator Editor Todd Franko wrote in June, a YSU composition class led by Professor Alyssa Lenhoff pursued the stories of eight of those students. Those stories are now compiled in a book of essays called The Booker Project.
One of the eight students in the book, Nathaniel “Nate” Jones, went on to become a lawyer, the general counsel for the NAACP and a judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
He introduced Booker Saturday night, calling him a great loss for Youngstown.
“He took his craft and applied it unselfishly,” he said. “We read his book and hear the accolades, and we realize we had in our midst in 1938 a seed that became a tree whose branches provided shade for those who were struggling.
Booker was responsible for Jones’ career, said the judge, who approached the college’s president in 1955 and persuaded him to stop the discrimination with the activity cards.
Jones was at one time a stringer while Booker was Washington Bureau Chief for JET, and when he investigated the plight of black servicemen as counsel for the NAACP, the magazine picked up the stories. He was on the “national stage” then, and President Jimmy Carter chose him to be a federal judge.
Jones said Booker paved the way for him and other black men who rose to prominence.
“Many are there because of Simeon Booker, who used his skills as a journalist to project their names or causes,” he said.
In spite of how far the country has come, Booker said, it still has many problems.
“We need to acknowledge the multitudes of those left behind,” he said. “The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.
He said Pope Francis raised the question: Why isn’t it news when a homeless person dies, but it is when the stock market falls two points?
He decried the poverty created by the minimum wage, unemployment, drug abuse and gangs.
“I’m convinced that all sectors of our society need to get involved in closing the gap between the rich and the poor,” he said.
“Good luck, and God bless.”
Booker will be the fall YSU commencement speaker today. His tribute was arranged by the Simeon Booker Group, a local organization dedicated to promoting his work. Funds from the Knight Foundation and several local donors provided for the event. All guests received a copy of Booker's life novel, "Shocking the Conscience."